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The back of an RNLI lifeguard, looking out to sea. He is wearing a red fleece with a yellow rescue tube over his shoulder and is standing next to a red and yellow flag.

An epic paddle to save eight swimmers swept out to sea

Photo: RNLI/David Edwards

A fun day at the coast could have ended in tragedy for eight teenage friends. Little did they know that their decision to swim in between the red and yellow flags on a lifeguarded beach would save two of the girls’ lives.

It was Sunday 25 June 2023. People in the UK were enjoying the warmest June on record. But despite the warmth, the weather had become unsettled and, much like the sea, changeable and unpredictable.

On Tregantle Beach in Cornwall, there was a choppy swell with lots of surf. The eagle-eyed RNLI lifeguards were keeping a constant eye on the sea conditions to ensure the swim zone in between the red and yellow flags was the safest it could be, adjusting the flags when necessary. 

Dragged out to sea by a flash rip

At around 4.20pm, Charlie Gillett, Lead Lifeguard Supervisor, answered an urgent radio call from Senior Lifeguard Harry Moir. A group of swimmers were being swept out to sea in a flash rip current. 

‘We had two senior lifeguards working the beach that day,’ Charlie explains. ‘Harry was on the water’s edge. I was up at the base. He radioed to tell me that he was entering the water on a rescue board to help some people who were in difficulty. I saw him grab a board and run into the surf to paddle out to the swimmers.   

‘I saw Senior Lifeguard Rupert Callard grab the other rescue board and start paddling out too, just seconds behind him.’

Senior RNLI Lifeguards Rupert Callard (left) and Harry Moir (right) standing on Tregantle Beach in front of the beach patrol vehicle. A rescue board lies on the wet sand next to Rupert.

Photo: RNLI/Charlie Gillett

Senior RNLI Lifeguards Rupert Callard (left) and Harry Moir (right) who rescued eight people from a flash rip on Tregantle Beach

‘A mass rescue of multiple swimmers’

‘It was a busy swim zone - there were probably about 40 swimmers between the flags. But I could see people right at the back of it, out of their depth,’ says Charlie. ‘Realising it was a mass rescue of multiple swimmers, I ran down to the water’s edge and grabbed the third rescue board that we had on the beach.’

Before getting into the water, Charlie requested the immediate launch of the nearest inshore rescue boat, which is stationed at Tregonhawke Beach, about 5 miles down the coast. 

‘Once I got confirmation that the boat was en route, I began paddling out to the swimmers,’ he says. ‘I called to the other bathers to get out of the water because the conditions had changed, and the swim zone wasn’t being watched because all lifeguards were in the water.’

Charlie Gillett, Lead Lifeguard Supervisor, on a rescue board in big surf on Tregantle Beach. The photo is taken from a GoPro camera attached to the rescue board.

Photo: RNLI

Charlie Gillett, Lead Lifeguard Supervisor, braving the surf on Tregantle Beach

‘A brilliant result’

‘As I reached the back of the swim zone where Rupert and Harry were, they’d already got all the swimmers secured,’ says Charlie. ‘Harry had six swimmers clinging to his rescue board - that’s probably the most you can have. 

‘Rupert had paddled further to rescue two swimmers who had been swept out the furthest and who were in the most difficulty, struggling to keep their heads above water.  

‘Once Rupert and Harry had all eight swimmers secured on their rescue boards, they paddled back to shore until the breaking waves and surf washed them in. When the water was shallow enough to stand in, Rupert and Harry then walked the swimmers safely back onto the beach.

‘I repositioned the swim zone to a safer area about 10m along the beach - that shows you how changeable conditions can be - and we let the other bathers go back in.     

‘We made sure the eight swimmers, who were all friends, were OK. Although none of them said they’d inhaled water, we explained the risk of secondary drowning and gave them some information to take away so that they were aware of the symptoms. They then carried on with their day at the beach, which was a brilliant result.’

Senior RNLI Lifeguards Harry Moir (left) and Rupert Callard (right) keeping watch over swimmers at Tregantle Beach from the beach patrol vehicle. A rescue board lies on the wet sand next to Rupert. The view is of the back of the lifeguards as they look out to sea.

Photo: RNLI/Charlie Gillett

Senior RNLI Lifeguards Harry Moir (left) and Rupert Callard (right) keep watch over swimmers in between the red and yellow flags at Tregantle Beach

Making lifesaving decisions: Who do you help first?

Charlie says: ‘When you get out there, it’s usually obvious who’s in more trouble. In this case, there were two distinct groups: six swimmers quite close together and then the two swimmers who were further out. Rupert and Harry knew they needed to split up. Harry secured the bigger group while Rupert rescued the other two swimmers, who most certainly would have drowned had he not reached them in time.’

Practise makes perfect - and saves lives

‘It’s unusual to do big rescues like this in the swim zone, but it goes to show how unpredictable the sea can be,’ says Charlie.

‘We practise how to respond to different rescues and scenarios in our 2-week lifeguard induction training. RNLI lifeguards are trained to think on their feet, to dynamically risk assess the situation, and to make split-second decisions. 

‘On top of regular training is experience. Harry and Rupert are both senior lifeguards with the experience behind them to make those quick decisions.’

An RNLI lifeguard paddles out to sea through surf on a rescue board. Water splashes are on the camera.

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

Regular training prepares RNLI lifeguards for all kind of emergencies and sea conditions

What is a flash rip current?

‘A rip current is a body of water moving out to sea,’ describes Charlie. ‘Breaking waves push water onto the shore and that water has got to find its way back out to sea. 

‘A flash rip current occurs when a randomly larger set of breaking waves causes the water level to rise quickly, dragging anyone in its path out of their depth and out to sea.

‘It was one of those days when the sets of waves were about 1m, and it was very choppy. And on days like that, the banks and the rips change a lot as the tide drops.’    

How to escape a rip current

‘The two swimmers who were pulled furthest out to sea were very close to drowning. But thanks to the quick actions of our lifeguard team, both lives were saved, and they walked away from the incident unharmed,’ says Charlie. 

If you find yourself caught in a rip current:

  • Don’t try to swim against it or you’ll get exhausted.
  • If you can stand, wade don’t swim
  • If you can, swim parallel to the shore until free of the rip and then head for shore
  • Raise your hand and shout for help.
  • Float on your back if necessary, until help arrives.
  • For the best chance of being rescued, always swim between the red and yellow flags at a lifeguarded beach.
The flatter channel of water in between the white breaking waves at the centre of this photo is a rip current

Photo: RNLI/Nigel Millard

The flatter channel of water in between the white breaking waves at the centre of this photo is a rip current  

‘You can’t put a price on someone’s life’

‘Because the group were swimming between the red and yellow flags, they were rescued in under a minute. Had they decided to swim outside of the red and yellow flags 200m or so down the beach, it would’ve been a very different outcome,’ says Charlie.

‘When you compare the RNLI’s lifeguard service to other lifeguard services around the world, it’s one of the best. It may cost a lot of money to deliver a world-class lifeguard service, but you can’t put a price on someone’s life. 

‘Harry and Rupert felt really proud of what they achieved that day. And I was really proud of them. It was a good team effort all round.’  

Thank you for helping to prevent a tragedy

‘When you look at the number of rescues and the lives saved by RNLI lifeguards across the UK and Channel Islands, it’s such an invaluable service. A service that is only possible with your kind support. So thank you for being there for RNLI lifeguards like Harry, Rupert and me - and for all those who rely on us to be there for them,’ says Charlie.

Discover our top five tips on how to enjoy the beach safely and watch a video on how to spot a rip current.

Top five beach safety tips